It seems certain Buddhist groups have come to believe in something they call the "luminous mind" or the "primordial consciousness"; in essence, a mind that is lasting, stable, and assumedly pleasant.

From a Theravada point of view, this is terribly problematic; if this mind is able to know multiple consecutive objects, then it is indistinguishable from multiple cittas arising and ceasing, and thus not lasting at all. The idea that there is something lasting from moment to moment sounds very much like the concept of a soul. How does it differ? Or is the point that these Buddhists do believe in a soul?


4 Answers 4


This belief of a lasting mind is challenging Paticca Samuppada itself. If there's a primordial mind, it has to be present at the time of birth. So it has to be none other than the Patisandi Citta. If this Citta is permanent, one of the following two major teachings of lord Buddha has to be false.

  1. Sankhara Paccaya Vinnaya - Dependent on volitional formations, consciousness arises
  2. Sabbe Sankhara Anicca - All conditioned phenomena are impermanent

"Luminous, monks, is the mind.1 And it is defiled by incoming defilements." -Pabhassara Sutta

Here, the Buddha is saying that the mind as a process is luminous when there are no defilements. He never mentions anything about a lasting citta. It's the same Vinnana of the five aggregates which is conditioned. If being luminous is enough to assume that it is permanent, the bodies of the Abhassara Brahmas should be permanent too. Because they are said to be radiant. :)

  • Depends on whether or not you consider the primordial mind to be conditioned, which it generally is not considered to be. Ajahn Sumedho also talks about consciousness not being personal. Commented Apr 21 at 2:34

"Luminous mind" in pali is pabhassara citta.

There will always be a problem when we start translating: citta, sometimes as consciousness, sometimes as mind; and there is another word in pali, vinnana, which is sometimes translated as mind, discriminating mind etc.

In my understanding of pali translation, translation of the use of a pali word is dependent on context, precedence and a whole host of other things.

There are opinions that to translate the cannon, understanding its context, the translator would have to have some experience of Buddhist meditation to get its flavour. If we say that is so, then how do we know that the translator is not incorporating his experience, basic or advance into his translation? If it is necessary and desirable then an advanced practitioner's translation would be much preferred, than to one who has no experience at all (if it is even possible to translate without any Buddhist meditative experience). We are after all talking about practice and experience.

Putting the problem of translation aside I'm going to decipher, IMHO, my understanding and translation of citta, vinnana and phabassara citta.

First I would quickly translate vinnana as mind or discriminating mind, and put that aside or away as not concerned with citta, which is translated as consciousness and phabassara citta, which would be luminous consciousness.

As we all know from our Abhidhamma there is only ONE consciousness (citta) and because of the many different mental contents (cetasikas) that arise with it we get different flavours of citta ( 89 flavours) etc...

  • Now what is this ONE citta?

  • And what is this arising and ceasing of the different flavours of citta, if it is not this one citta?

  • What does it mean for the citta to cease: does it mean to disappear into nothingness or disappear into something?

    • If it is nothingness, where does what makes up the citta and mental contents (call it energies, tendencies or whatever) goes and how does it arise again from its cessation? If its further arising is due to tendencies, where are these tendencies stored when the citta disappear?

    • If it is something, it must only be citta as there is nothing else that is other than citta.

It takes a lot of faith to believe that the citta disappears into nothingness and then arises again from nothingness almost intact with its kammic tendencies untouched.

What other traditions have explained (including the Thai forest Theravadin tradition, through the experiences of accomplished meditation masters like Ajahn mun) is that, that one citta that we have been talking about is the phabassara citta, "luminious consciousness/mind(loosely)" or primordial mind, clear light mind, buddha nature, bodhicitta, etc..

That the arising and ceasing of consciousness is "apparent". These flavours of consciousness arises and ceases within the "primodial consciousness" which is as yet, unseen, and seemed like nothingness. That is where avijja lies, where all the kammic tendencies are stored, the primordial consciousness.

How do we know it is there when it seemed like nothingness?

In a yet unenlightened being it is just "awareness". When the mind is empty it has this basic quality of "awareness and knowing" in an advanced practitioner and "awareness and knowing" has no shape or form?

In the end when we truly see it, it can be described as "consciousness without surface".

I've not found any description of soul that matches what I've said, so I'll pass it.

EDITS: (I've added further explanations in my comments with @Sankha below)

With a primordial consciousness, pabhassara citta ( which can be compared to an ocean with its waves), which is "stained" with kamma craving energies, creating the waves of these "apparent" arising and ceasing of the kusala/akusala/kiriya cittas, we continue to have the arising of the cuti (death) citta followed by the patisandhi (re-birth linking) cita.

At the end when craving is ended there is only the kiriya cittas waves in an Arahant's mind. When the last wave of the cuti citta ceased into the primordial consciousness, this primordial consciousness purified is the only permanent pure awareness, the nibanna without remainder, unestablished.

There is nothing that I've said that is not in accord with the Abhidhamma with only the addition that other traditions have added, that the ceasing is not into nothingness but into a primordial consciousness. What is the primordial consciousness in different traditions? Is it permanent?


After reading the answer from @Samadhi, I think I have a better idea of what Luminous Mind, or Luminous Consciousness is.

One interesting story is of Chuang Tzu. He dreamt one day of being a butterfly flying through a garden. When he awoke, he wasn't sure whether he was dreaming that he is the butterfly or whether the butterfly is dreaming that it is him.

But what is common between the two experiences? Both had different identities, but the same base consciousness or awareness of itself. It is said that this is the same for all beings. So much so, that it is often conjectured in some other religions or philosophies, that this is permanent in the universe, or is a universal consciousness. This might also be the meaning of the Vedic statement "prajñānam brahma" or "Brahman is Consciousness". The luminous mind may be similar to the Hindu concept of prajñā.

However, from the suttas, the Buddha denies that there is such a permanent or universal consciousness, by defining the concept of "eye consciousness", "ear consciousness" (see here) etc. In other words, the "luminous mind", while being common for all, is not permanent or universal, because it arises and falls according to dependent origination. But it is the base consciousness or mind of all beings, which is not defiled by anything.

The base consciousness, just like the sense of sight, is common for all of us, but it arises and falls, just like sight, based on dependent origination. It is a common experience, but it is not permanent and it is not all linked together in the universe. This may be the Buddhist perspective, as opposed to the Hindu perspective.


As far as I understand, Buddhists do not believe in a "soul". To confuse "luminous mind" with "soul," would be a mistake. Certain Tibetan schools use the term "clear mind," and they are all referencing the same idea.This does differ from school to school and from Hinduism to Buddhism, for example.

To say "something arises" or that "something disappears into emptiness" is confusing. Whatever it is that disappears does not disappear into emptiness — just as though we might find that there is nothing in a sealed metal barrel, simply because we cannot see it does it mean that it has not been there, that it has arisen, or that it at some time, disappeared. Science tells us, for example,that there are constituents in that barrel.

To quote Sakya Trizin:

"It's not enough just to renounce attachment to this life. To be truly liberated we must transcend the idea of a solid reality altogether."

  • Ca you explain the quote in the last paragraph, or how it relates to or answers the question? I don't see any connection there.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 22:08

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